Tag Archives: language learning

Children’s books

While searching for books that are simple enough for me to read in Japanese, I’ve been musing about the attributes that make these suitable for language learners.
If starting from scratch you need repetitious text with obviously illustrated nouns. This describes some of the books I purchased. The downside of the simplest books is that they become an illustrated list of nouns (or adjectives like colours), and therefore have no narrative.
In Japanese you have the added complication of the writing system. Beginner books use hiragana only. Then there are some that have katakana with hiragana transliterations. Then there are a few that use both the alphabets without guides. At the next level kanji are included with hiragana guides. The level of support for kanji varies.

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Mots Croisés (Crosswords)

crosswordpic

I was recently in Perth for a couple of weeks, so made the most of the opportunity to visit le forum in Fremantle.  It is a lovely little French bookstore in an almost abandoned small shopping mall at the edge of the shopping area of the city.

I came away with a large bundle of books, mostly for reading as a foreign language, but also a couple of crossword books for children.  People may have the impression that crossword books for 8-year olds would be easy for language learners, but that is not the case.  Children seem to be exposed to and know many more nouns than the typical language learner.  I worked my way through a few crosswords in my new Mots Fléchés book for 8-year olds and it revealed the huge gaps in my vocabulary.  Each crossword had a particular theme.  I did ok on common animals (lion, tigre, zebre, léopard, éléphant), European cities and words about Asia (sumo, sushi, sari, panda), but completely failed on words about the snow, medicine or the kitchen.

My other purchase, “Jeux de mots” for 8+, was easier, due to the dense French-style crossword grids that have clues like “the first and 4th letters of the alphabet”, “double vowel”,  “the first two letters of italien”,  “the second person singular of the present tense of avoir”.  (I’ve translated the clues here.)  These provide lots of hints for the other words of the puzzle.  There were also many more core vocabulary words like man, woman, place, with, pretty etc.

I’ve done other crosswords in French or for French in the past.  One book starts with small crossword triangles with simple words up to 3 letters long and 3 clues in total, and works its way up to 12 by 12 grids and the more difficult verb tenses.  I seem to have lost the original though, so I can’t tell you its name or publisher.  ELI has a book entitled “Jeux faciles en français”, which is for primary school children.  They have a page of vocabulary, such as the numbers from 1 to 10, then a join the word to the item, followed by a crossword and word search.  This pattern repeats for each set of vocabulary.  I remember enjoying this kind of activity as a 5-year-old, so perhaps it works for young kids.

I have a couple of books of vocabulary games including crosswords by Maurie N. Taylor, published by the National Textbook Company.  These are for English-speaking students of French, and are not immersive, but can help cement vocabulary.  However, I think that given the amount of vocabulary and language knowledge assumed in the books, that less English could have been used in the book to give more practice.

I also do crosswords in Dutch sometimes.  The children’s ones are possibly marginally easier for me than the simplest adult ones, but again, the adult ones usually provide more cross-clues, which offsets the slightly more difficult language.

I believe it is possible to create immersive crosswords for use at the earliest stages of language learning – certainly for European languages.  I do this in my comic book.  The crossword uses the episode’s target vocabulary and incidental cognate vocabulary, as well as the sentences in the story that have just been read, to provide reading practice and vocabulary production practice without reverting to English.

All the Drama

I’ve been reading a lot of easy readers in French and German of late, and some of the recent ones are of the Lectures CLE en français facile series.  I’m now at a point where reading the 500-600 word vocab ones are easy enough for the story to be enjoyed.

In the past I’ve not looked forward to reading abridged and adapted versions of classics, either because I wanted to read the original at some point, or just because I found them uninteresting.  However, I’ve changed my mind.  The CLE 500-word vocabulary adaptations of En Famille (by Hector Malot) and La Guerre des Boutons (by Louis Pergaud) were both thoroughly engaging.  I’m now reading Jacquou le croquant by Eugene le Roy, which is a 600-word vocab adaptation.  There seems to be a lot of 19th century French literature about people living in poverty and hard times, and CLE has made it accessible to learners of French.  I find the lengths of the books to be about right too, at about 50 pages of story – probably about 12,000 words all up.

I hope that I can find a similar resource for German. 

Gnomeville Episode 1 is done!

Having given myself a hard deadline of Friday so it would be ready for launching at a concert of French music, it is done!

The “I Can’t Believe I’m Reading French” Comic Book Series, Episode 1: Gnomeville: Dragon!

Gnomeville comic book cover containing head of dragon with smoke billowing out of its mouth and the title "DRAGON!" in large red letters

  • 28-page booklet plus audio CD containing 3 stories in comic book format, a crossword, a song and a language summary.
  • Assumes no prior knowledge of French but a native or near-native English speaking background.
  • Introduces 12 of the twenty most commonly occurring words in French newspapers, one new word per page of the Gnomeville story.
  • Uses the words that are common to French and English to ensure that all words in the stories are familiar, such as “dragon”, “gnome”, “arrive”.
  • The Fido story provides further reading practice, ensuring each target word has been read at least 5 times.
  • The crossword allows you to actively use the language to increase retention
  • The songs provide further practice, including pronunciation
  • The narration provides pronunciation information and listening practice
  • The Taxi story is a nice easy story to read after the other stories.
  • The audio CD contains the stories read by a native speaker, plus two songs related to the stories.
  • $20 plus postage from Melbourne Australia
  • Currently only available from me directly, but stay tuned for updates.

Top French Movies

One of the ways that I pick up foreign language listening skills is watching movies and TV series in the language.  For Italian I took it one step further in that I made bingo sheets of common expressions to encourage listening instead of just reading subtitles.

I will probably do the same for French at some point.  Here is a list from 2011 that I found, of the top 10 French films.

  1. Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis
  2. La Grande vadrouille
  3. Astérix et Obélix : Mission Cléopâtre
  4. Les Visiteurs
  5. Le Petit monde de Don Camillo
  6. Corniaud
  7. Taxi 2
  8. 3 hommes et un couffin
  9. Les Bronzés 3 amis pour la vie

Oops, one missing from the top 10.  Maybe I misunderstood the last paragraph of the article.

Writing Easy Readers

There has been a lot of research over the past few decades on the use of extensive reading for language learning, with Paul Nation being a prominent name in the research community.  Out of all this research has come some general guidelines on how to use extensive reading to improve your language learning skills, but also how to write or adapt stories to suit language learners.  Here’s my version of the basic requirements.

  1. Decide what your core vocabulary will be, for example 1,000 word families.  You may also want to decide what grammatical repertoire you are going to include – at least for lower levels of language skill.
  2. Decide whether you want to teach a particular set of vocabulary in the story (eg. colours).
  3. Ensure that at least 95% of the text consists of words from your core vocabulary or proper nouns.
  4. For words in your original draft that are outside of the core vocabulary, consider changing them to ones that are within the core vocabulary.
  5. For the remaining out of vocabulary words that occur less than 5 times (say) in your story, provide a gloss.  (Also for any idiomatic expressions.)
  6. For words that you want to teach, ensure they occur at least 5 times in the story, but in a way that doesn’t ruin the story.  It would be better to have fewer occurrences than to make the story less entertaining.
  7. Use illustrations, as they help the learner retain meaning.

Here’s a vocabulary checker for stories in English.

Easy Readers

I’m a big fan of Extensive Reading as a means of improving one’s foreign language skills, due to it providing large quantities of language exposure – particularly useful for when the language you are learning is not spoken where you are living.
I’ve collected and read many books that were written for language learners, and would like to impart my opinions and advice for others wanting to learn by reading.
The two factors to consider when choosing text to read is its difficulty and its interest for you. If you don’t find it interesting then it will be hard to continue reading it. If it is too difficult you also won’t want to keep reading.
Text difficulty has two main factors: vocabulary and grammar. Many publishers state a vocabulary size for the books in their collection. The smallest vocabulary available is about 100 words (for example, ELI primary school age series level A0), and the largest tends to go to about 3500. Grammar difficulty tends to increase with the vocabulary level, with the easiest levels sticking to present tense, and higher levels adding more tenses and grammatical subtleties.
Ideally you should know 95-98% of the words in the text you are reading, i.e., there should only be one word in 20-50 that you don’t already know. This allows you to guess meaning from context and also not be too frustrated while reading. Publishers and writers vary in terms of how well they control the vocabulary in the texts.

My recommendations amongst currently available books at the early levels are:

Absolute beginners:
For English speakers wanting to learn French: Gnomeville. It assumes zero French knowledge, but good English knowledge.
ELI A0 (available in French, German, Italian and Spanish) – though beware – the same stories are in each language, so if learning multiple languages be selective. The stories by Jane Cadwallader cleverly introduce vocabulary as an integral part of the story – unlike some other stories out there that interrupt the narrative with contrived situations for vocabulary introduction.
150 words: La Spiga is cheap and fairly simple, but tends to have very little suspense.
200 words: ELI A1.1
300 words: ELI A1.2, teen readers A0 300 words
400 words:

  • ELI A2 primary school series. The teenage and adult series are much harder and less engaging – at least the two I’ve looked at are.
  • Teen readers 400 words

Among series that don’t state a vocabulary size I recommend CLE’s Collection Découverte for French. It has 6 levels and interesting stories. Hachette also do some fairly good stories in their Lire En Français Facile series.
In German, Langenscheidt publish a range of readers. I find the Leo & Co ones a little dull, but I still read them. I like the Inspector Müller series a bit better, but my favourite German reader is Kopftuch published in the Teen Readers series.

Many readers in European languages now state CEFR levels rather than vocabulary/grammar levels. For example A2 CEFR level can have readers with vocabularies of 400-1200 and also abridged native texts (with some vocab support). This is largely due to the way the levels are defined, which is based on practical skills rather than grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. However, as learners we really want a gentle transition between levels, and that is partly achieved by progressing up slowly through different vocabulary levels (and grammar levels) in our reading. Among series that only state a CEFR level, the CIDEB series contains some good stories. I found the vocabulary more difficult than Teen Readers of the same CEFR level, however.

For readers that assume English language knowledge, the Cambridge Serie Rouge is good, as are books pubished by EMC and the National Textbook Company (eg. Aventure in Normandie). Some of these are no longer available. Likewise, my favourite easy French reader, originally published by Mary Glasgow publications: Le Chapeau Rouge: Le Chien Disparu.
Aquila publishes good readers too, but do not sell to individuals.

If you want to see my ratings for specific books, head to: Goodreads user Dr Dabbler. In the end it doesn’t matter too much what level of text you’re reading, as long as you keep reading.

What I have learnt from reading stories intended for language learners is that a good story should have suspense and seamless vocabulary introduction. I apply this to my comic books, which are going for the niche of people with English language at a native/near-native level, and are beginning to read French. I’ve taken the tip from comics like X-Men and series like Dr Who, by having a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, to encourage the learner to read the next episode. I’ve written 3.5 episodes so far and published three of them. La saga continue!

Pronunciation songs

While preparing my choir for a concert of French music I have been inspired to write some rounds and short songs in French to help choristers to produce the correct vowel sounds, and to have a bit of an idea about how to pronounce French.  I’ve written one round for each vowel so far, and am now writing songs for various consonants.  Today I finished a song for the letter G.  I’ll probably publish these as a booklet for choirs and classes.

Language Qualifications

As I write a comic book in French for language learners I thought it would be a good idea to update my qualifications.  A long time ago I did senior high school French and the corresponding Alliance Française exams.  A few years ago I did a few courses at the Alliance Française.  This year I sat the (CEFR) A2 exam – a fairly low level exam just so I could see how it all works, and because I haven’t done an exam for a few years. 

Europe has a set of standards for language skill, known in English as the “Common European Framework of Reference” (CEFR).  The 6 levels go from A1 to C2, and reflect practical skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing, rather than just grammatical skills.  I hope to do the B1 exam soon, which is still a lower level than expected by international students entering TAFE in Australia, so I have a bit of a way to go.  B2/C1 is needed for tertiary study.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages